Colin Wiles Inside Housing


Watching Ian Hislop’s excellent BBC programme on bankers this week was a welcome reminder that some Victorian capitalists possessed philanthropic urges and a firm moral compass, unlike many of their present day counterparts.

George Peabody is a case in point. A single man, he had the reputation of a curmudgeonly miser, but late in life he suddenly decided to give away much of the huge fortune he had amassed through trade and banking. Most notably he set up the Peabody Trust in 1864 to provide housing for London’s poor. But the “undeserving poor” need not apply.  Potential tenants had to be in work and of good “moral character” to obtain a flat. In the same year, another Victorian stalwart, Octavia Hill (the founder of our dear CIH) adopted the same approach. With backing from John Ruskin, she acquired a 56 year lease on 3 slum houses in Marylebone for £750 and set about improving the moral and spiritual character of her tenants. Again, the “undeserving poor” were excluded.  She wrote, “I say to them, ‘You must either do better or you must leave; which is it to be?”

The Old Nichol in Shoreditch was one of the most notorious slums of Victorian London, immortalised in Arthur Morrison’s brilliant novel “A Child of the Jago.” It consisted of 730 houses and 5,700 inhabitants and had a mortality rate that was twice that of surrounding areas. In 1900 the London County Council cleared the slum and built the (now listed) Boundary Estate, the first council estate in London, comprising twenty blocks of five story flats around Arnold Circus. But the inhabitants of The Old Nichol could not afford to live in the new flats; they were the “undeserving poor” and were forced eastwards into the hovels of Dalston and Hackney.

Do you see where this is going? The new tenancy measures in the Localism Act have already been seized upon by some local authorities as a way of dealing with the “undeserving poor.” Fixed term tenancies will be granted conditional upon the tenant being in paid employment or training. Announcing the reforms this week, Grant Shapps said that they would restore the original purpose of social housing, “to provide a flexible alternative to help tenants achieve their aspirations.”

Now I’ve read a lot of housing history but I have never seen the “original purpose” of social housing defined in that way. Providing decent stable housing for the working classes to rescue them from the misery of the slums, yes, Homes Fit for Heroes, yes, but never a “flexible alternative to help tenants achieve their aspirations.”

Grant Shapps’ statement about the new tenancy arrangements also stated that, “Ministers believe the current system has failed…for too long social housing has been seen by many people as a byword for failure, a home for life in a dead-end street. I want to restore pride to social housing, so a social tenancy is once again seen as a launch pad to fulfil aspirations.”

You can trace this thinking back to Alex Morton’s 2010 Policy Exchange report “Making Housing Affordable” which forms the backbone of current Conservative policies on housing. Morton stated that “social housing is large, expensive and is failing its tenants” and that “social housing is “acting as a barrier to reducing poverty for its tenants.” I would urge everyone who has an interested in current policy to read it.

Make no mistake, social housing, with its proud traditions and heritage, is effectively dead under this government. Just as the slum-dwellers of the Old Nichol were pushed out to make way for the “deserving poor” I can guarantee that these tenancy changes, combined with the welfare reforms and a growing shortage of affordable homes will create a housing underclass that would be familiar to our Victorian forebears. Over the coming years you can expect to see more of this and this and even this. And then perhaps we will begin to re-discover the real original purpose and value of social housing.